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People Top 5
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- December 13, 2004
- Vol. 62
- No. 24
Prosecutor Kelly Siegler Uses Theatrics, and Sometimes a Knife, to Send the Bad Guys Away
Over the top? Definitely. Over the line? Maybe. Effective? Unquestionably. After five hours of deliberation the jury finds Wright guilty of murder and sentences her to 25 years. "It's all highly speculative—and you can't erase it from the jurors' minds," appeals attorney Stanley Schneider says of Siegler's provocative theatrics during the trial, a large part of the grounds on which he is challenging the verdict. "Kelly pushes the limits, as all great lawyers do."
Pushing the envelope has helped earn Houston's courtroom drama queen a better record than Roger Clemens. (Siegler's obsessive preparation and folksy style don't hurt either.) The 42-year-old assistant district attorney boasts a 95 percent conviction rate and has sent 17 killers to death row. "Nobody dozes off when she's prosecuting a case," says newly elected Rep. Ted Poe, a former Houston criminal court judge. "A trial with Kelly is one-half soap opera and one-half Law & Order—with just enough Jerry Springer sprinkled in to keep things exciting." Or maybe a series in its own right. ABC recently began developing the pilot for a one-hour show next fall with a main character inspired by Siegler.
Siegler isn't about theatrics for their own sake, she maintains. "You can talk about it all day, but you need to get to that 'Oh my God' moment when the jury finally realizes that's how it really happened, so then they cannot be dispassionate or objective," she says. "They really care about what happened to this victim." That's why a few years ago Siegler brought a pickle bucket into the courtroom, plopped down on it, and began telling jurors how the defendant sat on that bucket right after he killed a 4-year-old girl. In preparation for such emotional moments, when Siegler fears she might break down herself, she carries a paper clip in her fist. "I stick myself with it," she says, "so I'll be thinking of that instead of the case."
Last April Siegler and colleague Paul Doyle, her trystmate on the bloody mattress, acted out a scene of alleged sexual assault standing chest-to-chest with him appearing to grope her. "I get a lot of flack," admits Doyle, 30, who has earned the nickname "boy toy" around the office for his performances. "But when people are violated, the jury needs to experience that. And Kelly has a knack for relating to victims and putting the jury right in the scene."
Siegler credits her jury skills to her childhood in the tiny farming community of Blessing, Texas. "If you don't talk to folks in a small town, you're going to be very lonely, so you talk to everybody in the store before you buy your Coke," says Siegler, the oldest of three. "I look at the jury because I want to see how they make eye contact. I can see when it's time to stop, or change course. For example, in the Susan Wright case I was afraid I'd come across as too bitchy—she was a beautiful little blonde-so I'll ask my girlfriends, or friends in the court, how I'm doing."
Even as a youngster Siegler set her sights on the law. Her father, Billy Jalufka, who still runs a barbershop-cum-liquor store in Blessing, thinks she may have been influenced by watching him conduct business during his days as a justice of the peace. He and his two younger children describe the future high school valedictorian and Mensa member as studious and competitive. (He and Kelly's mother, Evelyn, who managed a steak house, divorced when their oldest was 13; Evelyn died of cancer in 1999.) "The night of her senior high school trip I was partying with her classmates, and she was studying," says sister Lea, 38. "She's intense in everything she does."
Since her graduation from Houston's South Texas College of Law in 1987, Siegler has been harnessing that drive in the Harris County D.A.'s office, where she now heads the division responsible for prosecuting capital murders and the most violent felonies. She is never anything less than totally, compulsively prepared. "I tease her about the way she latches onto a case," says Bill Green, who got to know Siegler during the 1999 trial when she won a death penalty sentence against the 17-year-old who killed Green's son, deputy constable Micheal Eakin, 25, after he pulled over a speeding car in which the teen was a passenger. "I tell her, 'You know the only difference between a pit bull and you? Lipstick.' "
The cases that give Siegler the greatest satisfaction, she says, are the cold ones. She has a "waiting on God" drawer in her office where she keeps notes and files on them, hoping that "some little thing will happen to make it a viable case." Right now there's also a large box of documents from a 1999 case she hopes to revisit on the kitchen counter of the otherwise immaculate five-bedroom house she shares with her physician husband, Dr. Samuel L. Siegler II, 49, and their two young daughters in a tree-shaded Houston suburb. "It's wonderful," says Siegler, "when you have a victim's family sitting there and it's finally over."
Though Siegler recognizes the toll her job can sometimes take on her own family—on occasion, she says her husband has told her, "God, Kelly, you're cross-examining the girls!"—there's nothing she would rather be doing. "The sad part of our job is that we only meet people when bad things happen to them," says Siegler. "The wonderful part of our job is that we're helping justice prevail."
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